How does Mlle. Nina run amok



【may contain spoilers】

When Nina (Natalie Portman) knows she is being cast as both the Swan Queen and its alter ego, the Black Swan, in a modern version of Swan Lake, she thinks it is a dream-come-true, a pay-off for her devotion to the art of ballet and her agonizing daily training in the company. Nevertheless, this dream is far from sweet and actually more close to the grotesque, crazy and strange 'prologue' she dreams about in the beginning of the film and it soon turns chaotic and nightmarish.

But is it really possible for one to incarnate two opposing personalities at the same time? Nina handles the confined and elegant character of Swan Queen perfectly while having great difficulties depicting the sensual, unscrupulous and dark persona of Black Swan due to their inherently incompatible qualities. Tortured by the hostility from her entire surrounding includes the possessive and protective mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), the demanding and egoistic art director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the fading ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) and fore and utmost, Nina's doppelganger, the sensual and seductive Lily, Nina starts to run amok. While all these characters somewhat correspond to the innermost anxiety, mental instability, symbolically castrated self and repressed desire of Nina, we start to wonder if all the actions of these figures or at least part of them are just her hallucination, the externalization of the troubled mentality of our protagonist? Is it not the surreal, grotesque and subjective imagery towards the finale and the highly suggestive and allegorical narrative actions seem to speak to us from Nina's unconscious mind?

While losing control of her mind, the body of the ballerina lose its integrity simultaneously and gradually becomes a 'bleeding wound (or womb)'. Nina constantly scratches her back; her toenails spilt; blood burst when she removes her cuticles. All these symptoms signify the breaking down of the Swan Queen and her transformation to the Black Swan as Nina tries to unleash the demonic self and repressed sexuality long-locked inside her body. The parallelisms between the binary devil / angelic and inside / outside seem to reinforce the medieval and Christian notion of internal filth which usually yet irrationally more associates with females. Thus, the blood flowing from Nina's wounds paths her road to abjection, hysteria and self-destruction which is ultimately a boundary crossing experience that rewrites her identity and finalizes her metamorphosis to the abject Black Swan. The fact that Nina can only transform to the Black Swan and give a successful performance after the stabbing of her doppelganger Lily / Black Swan / her demonic self seems to support the argument. Only can this final disastrous gesture, Nina unlocks and assimilates her alter-ego by releasing it through the unclean bodily fluid inside her body.

Despite the recycling of those generic iconography of horror films (blood, metamorphosis, double, mirror-image, etc), Black Swan is not only a psychological thriller but in essence, a woman's film in disguise of a were-swan. Its emphasis on female subjectivity and repressed desire aligns the film especially with Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) while Sister Clodagh (and Ruth) is torn between spirituality and desire in the former film, the ballerina, Vicky, is in a dilemma choosing between love and art in the latter. In Black Swan, the difficulty of achieving total artistic expressivity seems to be resolved by sexuality yet at the same time, the fatal and dangerous nature of pronounced female desire is foregrounded like the above two Powellian films.

Black Swan is a film en pointe that spirals downwards to the abyss of the never-ending human desire which symbolized by the fouetté en tournant of Nina as well as the circling camera movement during the ballet sequences. Also, it echoes Vicky's rapid movement in descending a winding stair in the end of The Red Shoes. Both female protagonists seem to be drawn to a mysterious force inevitably which ultimately pushes them to their downfall (and don't forget Sister Ruth falls over a cliff as well). To me, the lesson of Black Swan is not whether we should repress ourselves but a curious enquiry: why does woman always run amok and fall in cinema?

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